94: Tatamu and Musubu: Folding and Tying Your Gear

Have you ever thought that you could get a glimpse of the attitude and philosophy of a dojo with the way people handle putting away and putting on their gear? Granted, it’s not a major indicator, but it is an interesting way to observe how that dojo and the people in it functions.

I mention this because I’m thinking about my own club and some of the students’ lack of attention to such matters, and something that happened some years ago that brought this point into focus for me. First, the latter incident:

I had been invited to teach some very basic sword methods to a friend’s aikido class for youngsters. The class was fun, the kids got to play with pointy wooden objects, and I got to work with a totally different bunch of people. It was, all in all, a very enjoyable experience. Class ended, and as was my usual habit, I wandered off into a corner to take off my hakama and keikogi. Immediately, one of my friend’s senior black belts rushed up to offer to fold my hakama for me. I demurred several times, but the student kept insisting, and my friend finally had to intercede on his behalf. That was how he trained his students to pay respect to higher ranking teachers, he said. Plus, they learn how to fold up and stow (tatamu) a hakama properly.

I relented and let the student fold my hakama, not wishing to break his dojo’s traditions. It was their dojo and their customs. The student did a wonderful job folding the hakama and tying up the cords, giving it to me in a very nice rectangular, compact shape. I thanked him and he was very happy.

As soon as I got home, I shook the folded hakama open and refolded it my way. It wasn’t just because the “aikido way” of folding a hakama is different from the way I idiosyncratically folded my gear. In my own dojo, every individual is responsible for his stowing his own gear, higher ranking members and teachers included. It just felt wrong for me to leave the hakama like that, folded by someone else. Who knows, he might have slipped a poisonous snake inside its folds? Paranoid? Yep. You bet. That’s koryu thinking. We’re a bunch of deluded paranoid crazies.

There’s no wrong or right here, but really just different mentalities, and one which quite possibly illustrates a divide between modern (gendai) budo and koryu bujutsu (older martial systems). In that aikido class, the tradition of folding your teachers’ and sempai’s hakama reinforces a structural hierarchy and uniformity of methodology. It emphasizes the order of higher to lower ranking, consideration of the instructor, and mutual respect. Possibly the interaction builds personal connections between the lower ranking and the higher ranking members, while retaining the hierarchy, an important aspect in aikido, especially when you want to inculcate respect for elders and social etiquette in youngsters. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think it’s a laudable custom.

In the koryu that I have trained in, however, nobody gets to handle somebody else’s dogi (training outfits) to put away or take out, or for that matter, no one touches another person’s training weapons without permission. This is, I will admit, probably stemming from a paranoid tradition among the bugeisha who used to train in the earliest koryu arts, and most likely comes from their hereditary warrior mentality. When donning a keikogi, you should learn to put it on yourself and take it off yourself, the better to be completely sure that you have cinched it on just right for your body so it doesn’t fall apart in the middle of practice. And when folding your outfit for storage after practice, you usually want to fold it yourself so you know exactly how it was folded, so that when you put it on again, you can very quickly don it without being caught, literally, with your pants down, trying to figure out how to don it.

That is why I recently mentioned to my students that they should really not spend a lot of time gabbing with each other when they are changing into their keikogi. Being half-dressed is really a poor position to counter an attack, so the faster you change, the better, then you can talk story all you want before practice starts. But don’t do it and extend the time you have with your pants down and you’re just in your boxer shorts.

That sense of real and mental preparedness also filters down to weapons. When they are stored away, each person is responsible for bagging his own dogu (tools). In iai, for me, it’s a practical matter. Before I store my iaito, I check the handle and blade, make sure the pin that holds the blade in the handle is secure in the socket, and then oil down my own sword. I don’t let anyone else do it because it’s my responsibility to make sure the weapon is in proper shape and not liable to breaking or falling apart the next time I train. Then I wrap my sageo around the handle of the sword in a particular knot (musubikata) that is characteristic of my ryu. It may be that someone may be able to figure out the knot, undo it, fool around with my sword, and then retie it, but the tie at least will give some pause to anyone attempting to disturb it or alter its condition.

I liken it to modern soldiering, where each soldier is responsible for keeping his personal gear and weaponry in top shape. You don’t let someone else break down and clean your rifle before you go out on patrol, least of all someone who might be lax in his attention to details. You do it yourself, you make sure the weapon is secure, properly oiled and properly sighted for your own personal preferences, because having a weapon that will not jam on you due to someone else’s laziness will literally be the difference between your life or death. And even if someone does do you a courtesy of prepping your gear, it’s really a good idea to double check the magazine and rounds, and make sure the machinery is working before going out on your patrol.

Now, adhering strictly to these dojo rules is not going to make a practitioner any “better” at “fightin’” and “grapplin’” and mixing it up, perhaps. It doesn’t make you a better MMA fighter or tougher dude. No way. But they do address the mentality of the koryu, and paying attention to such details are, I believe, an attempt to inculcate not just a physical, but also a mental preparedness, a way of thinking, so to speak.

In terms of “self-defense” or “martial” ability, there is only a limited degree that physical training can count for. The rest is mental attitude. One can study and intellectualize about this, and read any number of excellent books on the nature of real combat, physical confrontation and survival by authors who I have recommended and quoted in the past, but you still have to cultivate a mentality that isn’t superficial or skin deep. And part of it is developing that kind of attitude from the moment you step into the dojo: being observant, being careful, and being watchful. Being attentive to your surroundings, and being prepared with your equipment.

So, tatamikata, the way you fold things: Old Japanese residences (and even new apartment rooms) have very little closet space, comparatively speaking. And what little there is is taken up by linens and futon bedding that are stowed away during the day. In the “old days,” that meant that a lot of your clothes were folded and stowed, not hung up on clothes hangers. Kimono were, however, put on racks to air them out, sometimes over an incense burner to smoke away some nasty body odor, but as soon as they were deemed ready, they were folded. The verb, tatamu, denotes a kind of folding in an orderly manner (you can “tatamu” flat a cardboard box, for example, or “tatamu” a complex folded paper craft item; the verb is also, I think, a root for the word tatami, the reed mats, that are flat and rectangular. You can tatamu tatami by piling them up, one on top of the other), so the clothing wasn’t just smashed flat. They were folded to best take advantage of naturally occurring seams and places where folds were expected to appear, to lie as flat as possible in a neat package, so that they could be put away in a chest with room for more items on top or beside them. Although each dojo will claim they have the “right” way to fold a keikogi and hakama, actually I’ve experienced several different “right” ways. So the only advice I can give is that you do it the way your dojo’s sempai do it. We do it differently from aikido folk, who do it differently from Shinto Muso-ryu folk, and so on. I don’t think it’s a really big deal. As long as it is “properly” folded and stowed, it shows proper dojo etiquette. (I will admit a mea culpa, however, to just throwing my hakama into my gym bag at the end of class sometimes and then carefully folding it up when I get home, after I air it out overnight. I have to do this in order to get back home, over a mountain range, just a few minutes earlier to make dinner before it’s too late in the evening. Here, family responsibilities trump neatness.)

As for musubikata, how you tie things up: How you tie up your cords and clothes gets into kitsuke, the way to properly dress in a kimono, which is a subject by itself. But often, you will stow away equipment that has bags or accessories that require some kind of knot. Again, this goes back to premodern Japanese culture, when there weren’t much in the way of zippers or buttons. Everything was cinched and knotted. Even in the West, knowing how to tie things up was one of those skills that came with daily life, whether on a boat or in the woods, like how to start a fire without modern fire-starting chemicals and charcoal brickettes. We’ve just forgotten a lot of it unless we were in the Boy Scouts or have sailing experience. It’s really not all that esoteric and exotic, except that for me, tying anything other than a bow and a square knot drives me crazy. I’m still having fits learning all the intricate and symbolic knotting that goes into tea ceremony.

With budo, there are fewer instances of tying things up, but you do need to tie up your cloth belt, your hakama cords, and so on. With weaponry, there are bags that need proper knotting, and that pesky sageo cord on the scabbard of an iai sword can just drive you crazy. Again, the different schools of iai will have you cinch up your hakama and sageo in different ways for practice. But stowing away the gear may also require some tying techniques.

When I first started iai in Japan, students in the Seitei Iai (Standardized, Modern iai) classes took off their sageo because it was too troublesome to deal with. Then one year when I returned, I was asked, “Hey, where’s your sageo????” So all of a sudden, we had to use the sageo, like the older koryu. So it goes.

Because the sageo was, in a way, reintroduced to Seitei Iai, dealing with it when the iaito was stowed away had to be reevaluated. Some of my sempai simply wrapped it around the hilt and stowed the sword in their carrying bags. Then more students tied it down to the length of the saya (scabbard). What I do with my own sword is tie it up in a particular pattern of knots that secures the sword into the scabbard. It looks complex, so someone who does not know how it was tied would have a hard time undoing it and then rewrapping it, but it is easy to tie up quickly, and it can be undone and the sword ready for use very, very quickly. It is an affectation of mine that I do not require of my students. I only tell them to stow their sword and sageo neatly, show them some basic methods. If they want to do it my way, I tell them, as my teacher did, that they have to just watch me do it and learn how to “steal” my techniques: learn by observation and trial and error.

The thing of it is, if all this was good for was to prepare you for fighting or combat, then the koryu would have disappeared long ago when the weaponry involved became supplanted by guns and more sports-oriented, exciting modern martial arts. But I think that attention to detail, to mindfulness, is in itself part of the active meditative shugyo (spiritual discipline) that makes the koryu so attractive to many people. As a practical consideration, nobody goes around with a long sword stuck in their belts for self-defense, after all. Or even a six-foot staff while going shopping for groceries. But as an art and a shugyo, the koryu still manage to convey relevant information about one’s state of mind, one’s attitudes, and one’s abilities in physical health, spatial awareness, and mental preparedness. These generalized traits are of immense service not just for combative purposes, but in everyday life. Paying attention to how you fold your hakama and tie and stow your weapons are part of that shugyo, not just an afterthought.

22 thoughts on “94: Tatamu and Musubu: Folding and Tying Your Gear

  1. After reading this post, my mind raced back 30 years ago with your comment “Paranoid? Yep. You bet.” To an old friend got me interested in the martial arts in the first place.

    We were talking about me becoming a cop. He told me “cops trust only cops and if they have been in the field for a long time they even lose that trust”. Maybe it is common in people that bear arms. I did not go into that job.

    Like usual I took a long detour from your thoughts on being professional in the things we do. But that is how I think.

    Enjoy your writings. Amazed at the variety of topics covered.

    1. John, now that you mentioned it, when I was doing karate, my sensei and two of his top sempai all became police officers. I was pretty close to them, and they were even encouraging me to join, but I chose a different path. Maybe the discipline in budo was reflective of what they needed in law enforcement, in a way, not so much the actual techniques, but the ability to stay disciplined and calm.

      1. Wayne, my second Karate teacher was a Hawaiian cop who did teach me discipline and the need be a citizen of society. I was lucky to meet really fine people who could be also scary dangerous.

  2. Nice post Wayne. I attend the International Budo Seminar in Chiba every year, and am always amazed at how the practitioners leave their slippers in a jumble outside the door of the dojo. When we’d finish training, the slippers have all been lined up neatly by the Japanese students.

    I also know a high ranking budoka who is always misplacing his car keys…

      1. Actually, Ted, it took me probably ten years to teach my own students to line up their slippers neatly. They simply didn’t get the subtle hints or got the idea when I would spend time fixing their footwear time after time until I finally had to spell it out for them. So…well, my own dojo isn’t all that great an example, either.

  3. I have expressed this before but have to say it again, “I always learn something new here at The Classic Budoka! Thanks

  4. I have never had the opportunity to study koryu budo, only gendai budo is available in my part of the world. However your insights still fascinate and inspire me. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Stu,
      Thank you for thinking about some of my comments. I think, what I do try to do, is contrast and compare the similarities and differences. I know that most people do gendai budo, but perhaps by contrasting the similarities and differences, one can gain insights into both, possibly. Not all things will of course apply across the board, but some surprisingly will. There’s much to be learned from modern gendai organizations for koryu groups, if they ever reach a critical mass of students, and there’s much to be learned from the smaller koryu groups in terms of legacy values and concepts. The door swings both ways.

  5. About how we tie our belts and our hakama… it drives me nuts. My aikido dojo doesn’t prescribe a way of tying hakama but we do have a way of tying belts… and people get it wrong.

    The knot is done for neatness and so that it’s secure. The way of wrapping the belt is to avoid a lump in the small of your back which you get if you tie your belt like we used to at karate when I was a kid. With the amount of falling we do, that’s a really bad idea. It also looks neat, and I think that’s important, especially because we’re English and have adopted the use of coloured belts for grades, some of which are very lurid and really look so much better if tied correctly. I try to influence this when I’m helping new members learn to tie their belts (and we do provide instructions amidst their welcoming paperwork that they probably don’t read) but we’ve got quite a few members who get the knot wrong, the wrapping wrong…

    It’s a fairly simple act of observation, so sometimes I wonder, if they can’t spot that how can they spot the details in the aikido techniques? They’re only looking selectively, not taking that and applying it to other things as well, and probably I’m reading far too much into it but you’ve scratched one of my irritants here!

    As for hakama… I wish we did prescribe a method, because then when someone’s promoted to shodan and suddenly has to start wearing one they would just be taught our way and wouldn’t have to figure out not only how to tie it but which way to tie it, which is the current situation. We’ve got a couple of dominant ways to do it, and it really just boils down to who the person grabbed and got to teach them after they got their hakama. Confusing and a bit messy and I think we should have a way, but I’m not in charge so…

    1. Matthew, I tend to try to let the students figure things out for themselves when it comes to such things but I remember a couple of guys driving me nuts because they never tied their obi on right or wore their keikogi properly. Finally, out of frustration, I taught them. Several times. They had to learn it because they were becoming “senior” students and would later have to help other students don their training outfits. Same with the slippers thing, and other things. Habits and customs that I would think were “but of course…” had to be consciously taught. And I’m still finding I have to be blatant and forceful about it, because hints and “leading by example” sometimes just goes over their heads. It drives me nuts, too.

  6. I definitely see, Wayne, your last paragraph, eye to eye. In our dojo, though not everyone observed it because we were not in Japan or Japanese, your point escaped most students. Yet, our sensei struggled with that lesson of mindfulness paying attention to detail. In warring Japan you had to be mindful and that has carried on in tradition to Budo, it goes without saying.

    My sensei would as a teaching moment for being alert and on guard, having mindfulness, tell us of how he trained back in his day before WWII. They where very severe when it came to corporal punishment, unlike today, for not being mindful Something that is sistered to other component frame members in Budo. Being banished from the dojo I believe was the only exception. I am not sure if I told this story, but in brief, the capt. of the dojo, was slightly not mindful when he came into to the dojo, failing to execute proper protocol of his rank and position, I chalk it up the aliment of being a teenager. As a punishment for his slight, he was lashed in a Roman crucifix position, until he passed out, after receiving a hearty blow to the face from the sensei. The crucifix position was not in the popular iconic artist’s rendering of Christ.

    My Sensei would also tell us about how Sumo training was when he was a child and how brutal and inhumane that was for erring mindfulness. Sumo stables did take everything to the extreme they have become the exemplar, the gene pool, for budo.

    Also, in an earlier comment, I told the story of my Sempai’s experience in Japan, at his iai class the Sensei skillfully doled out a significant blow with a bokken to the head of a young male student who wasn’t paying attention.

    Mindfulness going beyond Budo, was the stories I heard of teachers metering out what would be considered to day as criminally abusive corporal punishments to their students who where caught day dreaming in class. That tack does come from the military attitude of warring Japan.

    I am just pointing out how momentous, and how strongly stressed mindfulness is in and out of the dojo, in my training experience that is parallel and accurately described in the last paragraph of the blog. Again, I come from a very strict and traditional koryu sensei, who if he has druthers would have never shown tolerance on his modern minded students, upholding the old ways.

  7. Wayne, it’s really interesting to see your roundabout way to reach an important point in the final paragraph. It is an exercise in stamina!

    Thanks for reminding us of “jiki shin kore dojo”. You put it into words that are easily understood.

    Again being provoked, I only want to add that there is a difference between a “free mindfulness” and a state of panic that forces you to be on the lookout less you be punished by the master.


  8. Seemingly being provocative, which makes me rethink my wardrobe, I hear from old timers stories that really frame Koryu arts and Budo for me. It is a transference of knowledge that hasn’t been been exposed to time, or the influence of others. I am fortunate. I am fortunate to understand Koryu and Budo from people who lived it so differently than it is today. Budo in Japan was severe, grueling and unforgiving back in the day. My sensei often complained how soft people have gotten and how it has effected Budo. He was privately blunt in his disapproving remarks about anyone who received shodan under such conditions as, under 5 years min, easily (as a result of mechanically memorizing waza vs. challenging it).

    We would see Kendo 8th dan testing and he would say that kind of spirit is gone in Budo, everyone wants instant soup, everyone wants to be a big shot. Or, he would say his class isn’t a picnic.

    My sensei’s standards and that of his generation and before him had expectations where high, well grounded and solid. Something we don’t see much of in today’s Budo. Wayne talks about shugyo, if you ever used that word around my sensei or other old school Japanese I know, a fierce glare of disapproval is the least you’d get. A belittling and harsh verbal admonished meant to humble the ignorant and careless student was your first indication of your lack of mind-fullness. If your where slow and didn’t catch on after the first punishment, they found a way inside or out of the dojo to reacquaint you with the sanctity of what the word meant, and your lack of mindfulness. Now this treatment was not given all the students, only to the more dedicated students. The other students would get a pass. That my friends was the worse thing of all, getting a pass.

    Getting a pass meant he wasn’t concerned enough about your development to correct you. You essentially lived with your ignorance not knowing your error, your weakness. You than never learned mindfulness, or to think more deeply.

    I have come to understand mindfulness is interpreted differently with variations and limited liberties, like a singer with a song. At it’s core, when truly observed is with out variations. Originally a non-bugei concept of Buddhist ascetic origins, Shugyo transferred into bugei and then budo as a vital component in for training that relates to mindfulness; which is another such concept of parallel origin and transference to Bugei/Budo. Terms like Mindfulness and Shugyo are under the same mechanics as a song that is granted some liberty of interpretation by the singer. Or that of a music conductor. That must be realized when speaking of Mindfulness, Shugyo and other such terms. You learn the true way of these terms though experiences and stories of those who faithfully observed them in the tradition of old school Budo. And not by those who were treated lightly.

  9. I’ve always thought that if we can’t understand how to take care of our keikogi, etc. and the importance of mutual respect and fitting appropriately with our surroundings and training partners; how can we ever learn the art we’re spending our own and our teachers’ and fellow students’ time?

    C. Clark

    1. Exactly, Chuck! I should incorporate your statement into the last paragraph too, that’s what I was struggling to say!

  10. Interesting stuff. I think this is an area where the koryu attempt, at least, to embody that “professional” martial aspect that is hard to capture.

    Speaking for those cops, its not really a trust thing. Its a kind of frame of mind. John is right, after a while you tend only to trust – in the “with your life” sense – certain other cops. Sometimes its a matter of observation on how folks do the job, how they wear their gear, (for example, cell phones clipped to mag pouches, knives or backup guns in inaccessible areas…) or how they go about the job that confirms they are not tactically minded.

    But you do tend to find that people outside the profession just don’t understand what its like to be in it.

    I ponder sometimes if a few hundred years from now there existed a Keisatsu-ryu in which modern police TTPs were taught, everything from wearing a vest, to where you put your gear and weapons on your vest and belt, and how you approach arrest and control versus a weapon retention fight for life. Firearms handling etiquette, safety, and checks prior to going into the field or on a SWAT mission…..

    It would be a koryu…

    1. Not being a cop, but paying attention to detail does, applying to other fields, communicates allot about someone, their mind set, and especially where their mind is at.

      1. It may be a too late, but…..

        I guess, I was too short and my comment came out sounding, well, choppy and clumsy. I am going to take a bit more time on getting it right.

        I am not a cop. Being a cop, I am reasoning is a profession that requires a mindfulness is what was intended for Budo. An awareness that is seen in samurai being taught to respect the sword, and those in combat developing a mindfulness from being attacked. Something that hits home with combat soldiers and cops.

        I am not saying that mindfulness isn’t for mutual respect and harmonizing with those around us; which has come about from modern Budo practice. Instead am saying for the rest of us our lives are not in constant danger from being attacked. For us to Budo mindfulness as intended we must find thing in our careers and daily lives that mark a parallel. Here are some examples,

        If you work with a chef for the first time in the kitchen and he isn’t mindful of his environment, careless, and reckless , neglecting his knifes. He is show lacks of respect for his art, his work, and those he works with. Working with knives in the kitchen, if you are not mindful it will result in serious injury. Working in a kitchen has many other potential hazards also, it is a dangerous place any one to some level much be mindful.

        Another example, is most of use have used or worked with power tools, like a circular, table or other type of power saws. Or something else, that can really seriously harm you.Lacking any degree of mindful in keeping your tools in good working condition, insuring they work right, and are otherwise mindful when using them, serious injure will occur. Therefore, to avoid injury you really must be mindful in everything you do related to doing something that could seriously injure or is dangerous. You can’t be reckless and careless, with half-assed attention to things. If you are you are going to be hurt or get killed. There are many more examples relatable in this world where you need absolute mindfulness to avoid serious injury or danger.

        I am of the opinion the Japanese have taken mindfulness and made into an art within Koryu arts, in turn has become a big part of Budo practice. That arts encompassing a mindfulness the before you enter the dojo and when you leave the dojo. A spirit that is part of your daily life. Mindfulness, is an extreme attention to detail and what some call a pursuit of perfection, or flawlessness. A practice to reinforce mindfulness when you are practicing waza or when you have to use your art in a life or death situation (hope know one has too), it is a practice unto itself. Because with or without weapons, Koryu arts can still result in serious injury and death. A sharp mind as a result from the intense practice of mindfulness. Undoubtable mindfulness is part of a Budo mind. My view on Budo comes from my instruction.

  11. I do appreciate and am glad it is taught, as it is a big part of my Budo instruction, to have mindfulness as outlined by Wayne. I find it annoying as hell to have someone not respect their weapons treating them like toys, having no etiquette or respect for what they are or what they symbolize. For those type of people, their mindfulness spills over to other areas of training. Such as, their sensei, their training partners, and the dojo and the art.

    On top of my list is when you are talking to someone in the dojo, not in practice, while facing you or out of your eye line, they exercise a sword (or other weapon) kata inches from you. More often than not the sword swing is done in a flagrant manner. A disrespectful act that makes you their practice dummy. I have had this done at seminars, and by others from other schools. Such a reckless and disrespect, is never tolerated in our dojo.

    It is evident martial artists such as these are devoid of proper mindfulness, improperly handling all aspects of budo, and how they practice their personal life. It shows for me, too, a lack of respect for what the do. In contrast, those who pay attention, aware, who are mindful that is, shows in every aspect of their practice and training. It is worth repeating, it can be seen in how they handle their weapon, their clothing, their manner, their etiquette, etc. all reflect their mindfulness. Frankly, their isn’t enough of such martial artists.

    1. Jon, you have so much to say. You should really have your own blog.
      Please post the url here once you have set it up!

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